Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Plotting of a Novel

Scott D. Parker

Would you read some chapters of my book? That was the question a co-worker and aspiring novelist asked me one day in the summer of 2005. To that simple question, I responded immediately, without thinking, with a question of my own: Sure, if you read some of mine.

Just like that, I started writing my first novel and faced my first major obstacle. You see, while my friend had already started writing his book, I hadn't written word one of mine. I knew I wanted to write a tale where Senator Harry Truman was the main character. I wanted it to be a secret history--that is, one that could have happened, but it just never made it into the history books.

A pause. How in the world do you go about writing a novel? This was 2005, way before I started a blog, way before I met the wonderful writing community on the web, and way before I had written "The End." I'm not entirely sure how I came to my plan of action, but came to it I did. I had been through graduate school in history and the grueling process of researching, drafting, and revising a thesis. I knew what I did for that project so I applied those same skills to novel writing. Before I wrote a single word of prose, I needed to know where the story started, what it did in the middle, and how it ended.

Thus, I became a plotter. And I decided to write the novel from front to back, beginning to the end.

Soon after that decision, I had a vision of a scene. It's a crucial scene in the novel so I won't give it away here. The details of this scene were crystal clear. I knew the basic players, but I didn't know how they got to that moment. So I made my next major decision: I would not write that scene until I got to it, chronologically, in the book. I would wait and arrive at that particular place and time with Truman and his partner, Texan Carl Hancock.

Notecards and Seeing the Movie in my Head

I know there is a substantial delegation of writers out there who do not plan out their novels. They prefer the immediacy of just writing and seeing what happens. I like that, too, but I do it with a stack of 3x5 notecards in front of me. For the Truman book--which ended up being called Treason at Hanford--I sat on the floor of my guest room, closed my eyes, and "saw" the book play out. Each new scene got one notecard. I numbered them in pencil because I knew they'd change. I labeled the main POV character, the other players in the scene, and an overview of the action. I underlined all names so it would be easier to see who's in the scene.

This worked for me because I was the first audience member for Treason at Hanford. Me just seeing the "film" of this book allowed me to live it, to get excited when the action picked up, to be curious when Truman and Hancock started asking the right questions, and terrified when some of the characters started acting out on their own.

Yes, that really happened. I'll admit that, at first, I had stock characters. Truman couldn't get hurt, obviously, so I needed co-stars whose fate the readers would not know. During the notecard/scene stage, these characters did just go through the motions. But something changed along the way. They came alive. They started moving and acting in ways I had not intended. And that excited me to no end.

Writing the First Draft

I got a bit impatient and couldn't wait to start the prose creation. Remember, I told my friend that I'd be giving him new chapters of mine every week when he delivered his own work. I had to bust out some pages. So, even though I hadn't mapped every single scene in the book, I knew enough to get started.

But when was I supposed to write? I had a wife, a child, two cats, and a dog. I worked full time and had other duties and responsibilities to attend. My commute was 45 minutes one way, so writing before work was out. I could write at lunch, but I usually chose to work through lunch so I could leave at 4pm and be home for the family at five. Dinner, play with the boy, and time with the wife took up most of the evening. Carving out the time to write was a choice that ended up being 10pm to midnight every night. And here's where the notecard idea paid its true dividends.

I don't know about you, but I'm a bit tired around 10pm. The last thing I wanted to do was stare at a blank computer screen with nothing to write. With the notecards, however, I knew exactly what to write: the one scene on the next notecard. The notecards, by this time, were thumbtacked on a corkboard so I could see the flow. I colored coded the names of the characters so I could visualize how many chapters it had been since a particular character's last appearance on the stage.

Every night, I took the next notecard and wrote that one scene. Often, it took the full two hours because I let the scene wander around a bit. But each scene had to end at certain way. More than once, a character would raise their meta-fictional hand and inform me that they had more to contribute to the story. I listened and, in that first draft, I put it all in. Editing was what came later.

This notecard-per-night thing worked wonders. I gave me a singular focus for those two hours: one scene. If I blew through it and still had an hour left, I might start the next one but only if I could finish it. I didn't take Hemingway's advice of stopping a writing session in the middle of a scene.

For all the power of the notecard, there was still one more fundamental thing that helped me get over the hump.

Deadlines and the Power of Peer Pressure

Every Wednesday, my friend and I ate lunch together, my one time where I didn’t work through the lunch hour. We'd deliver our fresh chapters and return the marked-up copies from the previous week. Then, we'd dissect and discuss each other’s work. I'd offer hints on how he could tighten up his story and he'd tell me what he liked and didn't like about mine.

The criticism was immensely helpful. At one point, my friend asked me about the villains and what they were doing. Since I had my notecards and my comp book--one of those black-and-white things you get when you go to college; I had one for the Truman book and put EVERYTHING in it--I easily spouted off their activities. After I'd finished, they said "Put that in the book."

Lovely. I was nearly done with Act II and now he wanted me to go back and insert new chapters and scenes from the beginning. Sigh. Thus, my next crucial decision: instead of writing notes to get to later, I stopped my forward progress and backtracked. In the end, I preferred it that way as it enabled me to deliver a better-rounded story.

In the spring of 2006, the last piece fell into place for me. As you could imagine, there is the time in the process of a novel when you just want to stop. How, then, do you keep going? In my case, it was easy: I signed up to attend the Southwest Regional meeting of Mystery Writers of America. There were to be agents there and I wanted to give them a pitch. Knowing nothing about the industry, I assumed that you had to be finished with a manuscript when you met with an agent. The conference was on 17 June, so I made my deadline 1 June (to give me time to edit).

I made the deadline. It was a grueling slog through certain passages, but I arrived on the other side. As anyone who has ever done it can attest, writing "the end" on your first novel is a sublime experience. Cloud nine was way below where I was walking. The sheer magnitude of the accomplishment was astounding. I made my pitch and the agent asked for 100 pages. Boo-yeah!

The Calvin Carter Stories

The types of short stories I write come in two flavors. One the one hand, there is the spur-of-the-minute variety. Here, I do what others do with novels: describe a scene and just go with the flow. Those are exciting, but I don’t think I could do it for a novel. The other type of short story I write—usually my Calvin Carter, railroad detective tales—require the planning. You see, Carter is an actor and he likes a little flourish when he gives the big reveal. When he arrives at that point, he likes to show off and tell the bad guy the error he, the bad guy, did to get himself caught. Thus, I need to know the story before Carter does. Who wants to be upstaged by an actor, right?

For my short story mysteries, I do plan out the main crime, the villain, and how the crime was committed. For these, I use large spools of paper from Ikea. I unroll a 4-to-5 foot swath, tape it on the wall of my writing room, and mark it up. The good thing about this pre-planning is that I can bust out the first draft of a story in one sitting. That keeps it fresher for me.


I am a planner. For novels, I work best with a road map. Having the boundaries more or less defined enables me to blossom within them.

I use notecards to write scenes. I put the notecards on a corkboard with color coding.

I use a comp book to collect any and all thoughts.

For short stories, I use paper “worksheets” on my wall.

For the actual process of writing my first book, I used an old version of Word on an old Mac laptop (OS 9 for you Mac folk). Now, I use Scrivener on my MacBook, and export a Word file whenever I need to do so.

I use my iPod Touch as an on-the-go notebook. Whenever something strikes me for Carter or any of my other characters, I pull up the text file for that particular subject, input the new idea, and date it. Yeah, I know, weird, but I thoroughly love re-reading these notes and seeing the progress. I have re-read my Truman comp book a few times just to see how I got through it all. More times that I care to admit, I’d give myself pep talks.

Both the TaskPaper and SimpleNote apps wirelessly sync on my Mac, and I can import the text files into Scrivener where they show up in the research tab. On occasion, when I don’t want to lug my laptop out of the house, I’ll carry a Bluetooth keyboard that I sync with the iPod Touch and I’ll type directly into PlainText, my favorite app for writing out in the wild.

Book of the Week: The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. A Sherlock Holmes novel, commissioned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, written by the guy who created "Foyle's War." I'm in heaven. And that Derek Jacobi narrates the audio version is icing on the cake. I'm on chapter 3 and can state Horowitz has perfectly captured the style and vibe of John Watson, er, Doyle. Read and enjoy.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Interesting to read Scott. Thanks for taking the time to tell about your process.

Charles Gramlich said...

For me too, grad school gave me the discipline to work on longer projects and the knowledge that I could actually complete them.